In September, Brigaid Chefs April Kindt and Ryan Kennedy hit the ground running at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School (April) and New London High School (Ryan), in New London, CT.
They have served delicious meals to over 1000 students each day of the school year so far. This is no easy task with a limited budget ($1.25 per meal) and just 20 minutes for kids to pick up and eat their food.
From this interview you will see why they were the perfect people to figure out how to make it work. April and Ryan were interviewed separately, but you may also notice some similarities in their responses, a testament to why they make such a great team!
How have your experiences led you to this job?
April Kindt: The reason I’m here is because this job has more meaning than any restaurant job ever will. For me, this job is all about the fact that you get to cook, you get to do the job that you love and you know that the food is great, but you also know that you’re making a huge impact on someone’s life.
Ryan Kennedy: I think the biggest thing is that I have kids. I have a daughter in the school system – not this one, but a local one. Just seeing how disappointed she is with school lunch every day – you know, she did the hot lunch just about through the first half of kindergarten. I would ask her what she had for lunch and she would just say nothing. I care so much about this town and city. I met my wife here, my mother-in-law is here still, my nephew goes to school here, my sister lives here, my first job as a chef was in this town, so I thought it would be important to come back and do this job for a community that’s given so much to me.
When was the moment you realized you wanted to be a chef?
AK: I would say I was probably ten when I decided that was what I wanted to do. I cooked at home with my mom and like every other chef, it all started with family – then, you know, I started making my own things. The first thing I made on my own was peanut butter cookies and I didn’t look at the recipe before I started so I ended up not having three of the ingredients, I had to go to a neighbor’s house and ask them for the stuff. Then I burned like half of the cookies – of course I went back to the neighbor’s house and gave them the cookies – that is to say, the ones that were still alright. Just being able to give something that you made to someone and see their reactions and them enjoying it is kind of a cool thing.
RK: I’d worked in restaurants for probably eight years before I knew. It was just sort of a job that I’d always had. I always liked cooking, I just never made the connection that I could be a chef and that I could make a living doing it. I got my first kitchen manager job and I was just learning new things about food, and then I got a raise and I suddenly realized that being a chef could be a career for me. I could do something I loved and make money. I love food and I’m passionate about it.
What excites you about working with kids in school lunch?
AK: The fact that you get to build a relationship with the kids. I always joke that I have more friends in middle school now than I had when I was actually in middle school. For me, the great thing has been seeing that the kids are noticing that we care about them. They’ve started stopping by the cafeteria just to say hi. They’re going to be welcomed and pretty much whatever they ask for, I’m going to give them.
RK: I think the biggest thing is just that I catered in an affluent town for the past 9 years, and, not that the people weren’t nice, it’s just the things I’d get complaints about – it was just ridiculous. And I thought it would be really awesome to cook a good meal for kids, who are getting a ton of their calories from here. I always let the kids know that if they need anything, they can come to me and we can have personal interactions – sort of like this is my dining room. I circulate through here and shake hands, ask them how things are, fix mistakes, and hear complaints. For twenty-two minutes, they come here and they know that if there’s a problem or a concern, we’ll take care of them.
What has been the biggest challenge?
AK: One would be developing the recipes. When it finally clicked that we could make the meals healthy just by cooking from scratch without giving it too much thought. I also think training the staff is still a big challenge. I always say I think I have the best team here, and I think I do. They’re essentially doing a completely different job than they did last year. Just the fact that they don’t know half the time what I’m talking about when I tell them to get a piece of equipment or to cut something a certain way – just the extra steps to train them has been a challenge, but rewarding.
RK: Time management. Knowing that you have dozens of problems that need solving, or at least need attention, is just part of the job. Making peace with the fact that we’re going to fix one or two today – these other ones aren’t solved but they weren’t solved yesterday – when you can focus like that and start checking things off the list as you go down, it feels good. It is hard to not get lost in the overall mountain of things that need attention.
What has been the biggest success?
AK: The success comes when the kids like the food and when they know that we are here for them, and that we’re listening. Recently, I talked to a few kids in the cafeteria and one kid said, “Oh, I really don’t like this meal.” It was the black bean quesadilla. And he said, “I don’t want this. I want you to make this other thing that you made,” and his friend right next to him was like, “Don’t tell her that! Now they’re not going to make it again!” I was like okay this is good – they’re very opinionated about the food, they’re paying attention, and they also realize that when they say something, we’re listening. Also, yesterday, we served the whole meal, from prep to execution, without me touching or cooking any of it – my staff did everything. I pointed it out to them right away because it’s something that they should realize and be proud of. They are getting it and they are doing a great job. For me, just seeing that meal go out, I was like wow, this is going to work.
RK: For me it was forging a relationship with the staff that was pretty tight-nit, that I had no part of before – many of them had been here for ten plus years and they did things a certain way. Then I came in and now they have to take all of their ques from me, I decide everything when it comes to how we’re going to execute and who’s going to do what and where and when and all that stuff. Now I feel a part of that group, where they genuinely don’t question my intentions or my motivations or why I’m here. They know that I’m here to try and take care of them, and we’re here to collectively take care of the students. Also, I love having a strong rapport with sixty to a hundred students who I know by name and who say ‘what’s up’ to me and ask what’s for lunch and give honest feedback, good bad or indifferent, about the food.
What in your work has made you proud?
AK: I’m proud to say that I get to cook for these kids, and to know that what I’m doing is important. Of course, working with truffles and dry aged beef is fun, but at the end of the day you don’t really have anything to show for it. But with this job, the kids are essentially happier, healthier, and well-taken care of. I’m also proud to say that my team has embraced the challenge and that they are doing such a great job.
RK: It’s hard because I’m always proud but I’m not satisfied, so it’s hard to balance those two. I’m proud with where we are today compared with where we were. A mountain has moved in terms of the progress that we have made. Also, knowing where I want to be on day 180 when school is over and knowing how far there is to go, it’s hard for it to be more than just a passing moment of pride. I’m proud of the staff and the relationships that we now have with the students. And we’ve changed the student’s expectations of us. They now know that if they have a problem they can voice it.
What are similarities and differences about cooking for kids vs. a restaurant environment?
AK: The kids are very honest. In a restaurant, you do have people that will complain if they don’t like something, but for the most part, people won’t say anything. Here, the kids will come through the lunch line and they’re either excited – like one time they clapped because they had a chicken sandwich – or they tell you right to your face that it is disgusting, which is helpful because you don’t have to guess what’s going on. I mean, we’ve had so many recipes that we thought were going to be really killer, that everyone would love, but it turned out they hated it. It sucks when that happens, and you feel like shit sometimes because everything that you’ve worked for, everything you thought was going to be great, all of the sudden the kids hate it, but you can’t really think about it that way – that’s just your pride – we’re here for the kids. If they don’t like it, we don’t make it. It’s just as simple as that. It’s part of the fun of it though. They pretty much challenge us to please them. It is a hard job, but we’ll get there.
RK: There certain meals that I make that I think taste good. Being as objective as I can be when it comes to a taste or an opinion, I can find myself believing that the food is good, of high quality, and executed well, but they just don’t like it. There’s no arguing with that. So, there’s been a few things that we’ve just had to scrap or a couple things that we just do in much smaller quantities that I like and think are good but they just don’t like it. And there are other meals that I think are just okay, but they think it’s great. I think before, in a restaurant environment working with adults, there’s just less tension between those two points of view. We’re not here for ourselves, we’re not here to stroke our egos as chefs, we’re here for the kids and we’re here to make food that they want to eat, just a higher quality and healthier version of it.